On the Tagore trail


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‘I was certainly lucky that I did not have to pay the fare for the entire journey.’

(Rabindranath Tagore, letter to Hemantala Debi, Darjeeling, 1933)

IT always took me by surprise, how my friend Susmita scored more in Bengali than the rest of us. We would be asked to write essays on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel, Rajarshi, and inevitably it would be Susmita’s answers that would please our Bengali teacher the most. After all, she was from Agartala! Her ‘Bengali’ status was to most of us, who were Bengalis from Bengal, an untrue inheritance, like Bangladeshi immigrants writing ‘Indian’ in their ration cards! These are, of course, schoolgirl skits about unhappy report cards.

Last winter, when I travelled to Tripura for the first time, it was Tagore’s novella, Rajarshi, that I carried with me. Having read it almost two decades ago to teacher-head nods and exam regimes, I had managed to retain only the essence of its story: a king’s desperate measures to stop the practice of animal sacrifice in his kingdom. The hard cloth bound volume of Rabindra Rachanabali – bought by middle class Bengalis like my parents in the 1980s when they came in uncertain instalments through United Bank of India, perhaps the only remaining ‘Bengali’ bank – was too heavy for air travel. And so, much to my father-in-law’s dismay, for whom those butter-paper pages from the Visva-Bharati Press were as good as if in the poet’s handwriting, I carried the Tagore novella as photocopy on the plane.

It was a strange and estranging process of self-discovery: with a fluorescent yellow marker pen, I found myself marking, almost always, the same sentences and phrases that I had marked, for marks once, in a different copy of the book nineteen years ago. A quarter of a lifetime, or such by my retirement-life calculation, had changed their meanings for me. As the plane circuited over Agartala for about three quarters of an hour, unable to land at the Singerbhil airport due to ‘turbulent weather’, and it gradually grew dark, I found myself wondering how Tagore’s view of one of his favourite states in the North East might have been different, had it come to him first, like it had to me, as a Monet painting from the sky. The airport, used by the United States Army Air Base during the Second World War in 1944-5, has a Tagore story too: last year, an idea took flight among a section of literary enthusiasts in Tripura, that of renaming the airport in the capital after Rabi Thakur. And, soon after, a controversy ensued, with a tribal body demanding the immediate burial of the idea: they had been colonised too far and too often, and Tagore became a mascot for the Bengali cultural infiltrator.

When the Kingfisher plane finally landed in Agartala, it was past the warmth of early evening. The all-knowing light of the full moon night would come a day later. But there was something more ineffable, like reverse nostalgia, the memory or consciousness of a place that one hasn’t visited. What could it have been? Was it Tagore, then, as my parents had never failed to remind me on so many occasions, who by coming here first, a little more than a century ago, had changed the way one would look at a full moon night as Newton had changed the way one would at an apple tree?

The answer came through music, unsung, the words and tune a precipitation in my mind from where they flowed, unrushed, to the rhythm of the night: Aaj jyotsna raat-ey shawbai gyachhey bon-ey. Everyone’s gone to the forests this full moon night. These were no forests, only the afforested land that circumscribe airports in the pilot’s viewscape. And yet this song? Was it the night and its intimate light alone or were there personal histories in it that tied me to Tagore, as they have to every Bengali since? For it might have been the young poet Sukanto Bhattacharya who, curtseying the Bengal famine had, in a counter-romantic bluff, called the full moon night a ‘burnt roti’, but it was Tagore who had held the moon and the sky and their complex relationship of ego and dependence, one’s hide, the other’s seek, a Radha-Krishna leela, in his songs and poems.


The moon was also part of another cosmology, the soul’s calendar to which Tagore had measured comings and goings, births and deaths, travels and stops to the home and the world. And yet, like a musician returning to the som, it was the smallest and most intimate note that he always sought: a room. Aamar ei ghar bohu jawton korey/Dhutey hawbey muchtey hawbey morey. I will have to wash, scrub and wipe this room with a lot of care, he sings; it is that idiom of the everyday he returns to always, and especially when those words have escaped from the metaphor, it is telling. For a man who, very often, changed rooms or the arrangement of furniture in his room to escape the monotone of boredom, it is strange that he carried, besides a set of familiar people, the metaphors of scrubbing and washing to wherever he travelled. The sense of the temporary that makes us swing between the hotel-hostel-hospital nodes was not for him. And so, what pervades the souvenirs of his stay-at-homes is the cleanliness, almost antiseptic, that one cannot miss.


It is this heritage of hygiene that meets my nose first, over the mythology of personal belongings he is said to have used: pens, crumpled paper (that I wanted to open and search for the first lines of an abandoned poem, or frankly, the hint of reaction to a piece of gossip or criticism about him in a letter to a friend), an old discoloured jobba, sandals, rugs and carpets. Tagore memorabilia is, in all these places, preserved with the Hindu aptitude for idolatry, the atmosphere of he-was-here that perpetrates pilgrimage, but what is far more interesting is the way things are preserved. So while Thoreau’s log cabin is transferred to a nearby site to aid tourism, everything here is, to quote that pan Indian expression I encounter everywhere, ‘left-as-it-is’.

Left for whom? In that sense of anticipation of the devotee coming this way, someone like myself who couldn’t help indulging in the pen-for-the-poet metonymy tourism, is also the tentative drama of rebirth, of the neo-Egyptian belief of keeping the substance intact for the soul. That leap from the man to the many is the surplus of Tagore to ‘Thakur’, not just the original Bangla surname but of its meaning, a transmigration to godhood, to the echoes of his poem, ‘Proshno’: Bhagoban tumi yugey yugey… This anticipation of a god returning through ages in the poem, apart from its moral consolation, is the crux on which Tagore tourism survives and proliferates.

Perhaps Tagore contributed in this machinery of I-remain-in-my-remains himself, the same energy that drives pilgrimages to the Hindu Char Dhams. So the one hundred and eight parts of Sati’s body scattered all over the country, from where sites of worship and their mythologies have emanated, have their secular counterpart in the many Tagores that one collects as a tourist. What one notices in these Tagore holiday spots is a narrative of comfort, a luxury denied to both god and his devotee in busy temples. What I miss in all these places and, hence, the necessary contradiction, is a comfortable writing chair. Is that why we don’t see Tagore smiling in any of the photographs taken at these places?


In Matigara, a tiny potter’s locality close to Siliguri, families spend a couple of weeks in the month of Chaitra making ‘Gurudev putul’, Gurudev dolls, for the annual Baishakhi Mela, also Tagore’s birth month. In a poem, ‘Parting Words’, Tagore writes: ‘My whole body and my limbs have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch. It is for this touch that the buyer comes, to "thrill with his touch who is beyond touch".’

Tagore Room, Jitbhumi, Shillong.

In that ambition alone is the propellant of an entire folk industry. Like clay images of gods and goddesses, one finds Tagore clay masks, the beard painted milk white, his cheek bones exaggerated by the mould in which these masks are cast, his skin folded into heavy wrinkles of earth brown paint. Everywhere, Tagore is always the old wise saint: there are no young gods, none except Yashoda’s Krishna, after all.

I remember my parents buying these Thakur dolls for me. After my early enthusiasm ended, I’d pass them on to the maid’s son who would ask me for this particular god’s name. I would always say, ‘Robi Thakur’, and then instruct poor Budu to worship the idol with flowers every Robibaar, explaining that we owed our Sunday holidays to the god. Sometimes I also wanted to believe my own story. For Tagore’s greatest gift to a Bengali child are his poems – and pleas – about chhooti, holidays, escape from studies.


What had brought me to Tripura was not a Tagore quest, true, but I found his trail worth following. For what had stayed with me all these years was that one question the little girl in Rajarshi had asked the king: Aeto rawkto kyano? ‘Why this blood?’: it was a question that I found myself asking frequently during my travels in the North East. The morning after I reached Agartala, I travelled with Susmita to the Bhuvaneswari Temple on the outskirts of Agartala. This was the temple where blood had flown every day, prompting the girl’s question.

It seemed unremarkable to me now, and as I tried looking for a good camera angle to hold something about it that must have moved Tagore, Susmita stood away, talking on the phone. Only the driver – his name was Apu, and I was moved by that remarkable aleatoric connection between Tagore and Satyajit Ray – understood my disappointment. As consolation, he offered a bit of history in ellipsis: ‘It’s that nullah, that huge drain...’ How did he know what it was I had come looking for? ‘Everyone comes looking for blood, madam, but blood isn’t sasta any more. That drain, my father told me, is the one where the blood in Rabi Thakur’s book flowed through.’


The temple was small, there were no worshippers, no priest; a red-painted iron grille enclosed it from all sides. A big lock hung on the gate, and as I perched precariously on an edge to see where that drain led to, covered as it was by a rich greenery, the driver broke into a laugh and shouted in Bangla, ‘See that you don’t become a shahid for Gurudev!’ Susmita laughed at his words, even teased my disappointment, while I paraphrased to her V.S. Naipaul’s excitement about matching names of places, so far encountered only in books, with the rush of life in London. I had demanded that bloody epiphany from a temple – Tagore’s temple, real and fictitious, a bit like Tagore himself – and it had failed me.

Bhuvaneswari temple around which Tagore’s novella Rajarshi is based.

Susmita’s six year old son’s plea for peda prasad, I was surprised to find, was not from here but the Tripureswari Temple. Something else happened as I stood taking in the ruins of the palace close to the Bhuvaneswari Temple. Sandy Dev Burman, a friend, called me. He traces his lineage back to the ‘royal family’, a phrase I encounter quite often during my stay there, and he asks whether I liked the temple. Disappointed, and yet scared of turning it contagious, I say I ‘liked’ everything I saw, giving in to Facebook rhetoric. ‘He was our ancestor,’ Sandy declares with a laugh, turning the fact of his relationship with Raja Govindamanikya of the novel into a joke. I look at Susmita and wonder whether we could say the same words of Tagore: ‘He was our ancestor.’


This was not the first time that a milestone on the Tagore trail would disappoint me. In Mongpu, in Himalayan Bengal, which I have visited a few times, the first on a school picnic for thirteen year olds, all I could remember for a long time was the musty smell everywhere, not of filth or anything rotting, but the smell of a clean place bereft of human living. It made us sneeze, a chain of schoolgirl sneezes that upset our teachers, so that when I asked our Bangla teacher whether Tagore had written any poem about smell, she snapped at me.

We inspected Tagore memorabilia as if they were frogs on dissection trays. Someone wanted to know if the ink in Tagore’s pen had run dry, another whether the magic was in the pen or the hand that had held it. I wanted some of the fancy ‘antique’ painting stationery while my closest friend wondered whether the eucalyptus tree, planted by the poet himself, could turn him into someone like the Buddha.

The Home Science teacher inspected the tea set in which Maitreyi Debi is said to have made tea for the poet. On the whole, however, the Tagore house in Mongpu – looked after by Shishir Raut, its unpaid caretaker, who looked after the place out of a sentimental attachment to the poet, his father having been Tagore’s palanquin bearer here – made no impression on us. Its broken win-dowpane, chipped wooden doors, untended garden, and creaky hinges only greased our adolescent Bengali imagination to make of Tagore a ghost-like figure.


In the Mongpu bungalow, which officially has no caretaker now, a result of too many committees being allocated interdependent tasks, and a decade later in Darjeeling where I would visit colleagues in their Casselton residential quarters or catch gossip from students living in the Casselton Hostel, the same place for which Rabindranath had once paid a monthly rent of Rs 243, what would emerge most often in our conversations about Tagore were the planchette stories. Would the spirit of Tagore come to us, here, if we invited him?

It seems strange to me now to think, or even accept, after having spent the better part of a decade discovering Tagore, that it never struck me that this was from where he had written ‘The Waterfall’, his Gandhian play about a king who tries to dam a river’s ‘muktadhara’. There are no streams flowing near Casselton, only the mountain-skin puncturing downward rush of water during the monsoon. The Pagla Jhora is miles away. What could have been the inspiration behind ‘The Waterfall’? I once happened to tell my Nepali maid about the play, and after offering her a paraphrase, asked her to speculate on a possible location that might have birthed it. Her answer was remarkable: ‘Water here is the same as water everywhere. It is only the shape of the container that changes our perception of it.’


In that very materialistic and worldly answer, the Nepali woman had struck the keynote of the aesthete Rabindranath’s place-space bind, his striking ability to make, not like John Donne, his little room an everywhere, but just the converse – the everywhere a little room. Having turned a near-abandoned half-forgotten part of undivided Bengal into his Santiniketan, now he made of his little spaces in new places a Santiniketan. He found liberation in dislocation, and yet was always the rooted traveller.

The palace ruins, Rajarshi, Agartala.

It is this peculiar alloy of changing without transformation that one notices on the Tagore map in the North East: the houses on the hills, in Shillong, in Mongpu watching over the cinchona plantation, in Darjeeling overlooking the Happy Valley, in Malancha Niwas in Agartala, and in Kalimpong’s Gauri Bhavan from where he had recited ‘Janmadin’ (‘Birthday’) on All India Radio in 1940, inevitably offer an unfenced vision of a horizon-touching expanse, but everywhere, real estate agents have ensured that we can only imagine what might have fed Tagore’s imagination a century ago.


Visiting Jitbhumi in Shillong, the house from where he wrote Raktakarabi in 1923-24, a play about a king who exploits nature and science and creates an Orwellian bureaucracy, a situation all too familiar in our late capitalist times, one is immediately struck by the coordinates of space: the rich expanse of the garden in which is planted, just as one enters the compound, a plaque bearing an inscription of the historical importance of the house, and of course, there is a blood-red oleander tree that shivers in bloom to the cold September wind. Was it a lonely red oleander from this very tree that had held in it the germ of the play, which Tagore had noted ‘as if created from the blood of its cruelly pierced breast’?

The present owner, Runa Chakraborty, whom I address as Runa-mami because a close friend calls her so, is an extremely well read and sophisticated woman. After the initial introductions, she suddenly turns to my husband and smiles, ‘You do remember that Nandini’s lover in Raktakarabi was called Ranjan?’ Ranjan confesses that he had forgotten. Later, as I inspect the ‘Tagore Room’ – a veritable private museum with a settee, a writing desk, a framed copy of ‘Letter from Shillong’, Tagore’s poem, hanging on the wall, the furniture left ‘unmoved’, as Runa-mami insists, and a life-size knitted wall-hanging of Rabindranath, which lies, doll-like, half-reclining on an armchair – I hear Runa-mami telling Ranjan why she would never hand over this house to Visva-Bharati. Her answer is simple, the same one an audience reacting to Raktakarabi would say: ‘Bureaucracy!’


Easy to quote Tagore like many Bengalis, she is also quick to criticize the Tagore industry growing viral. When I hear a friend tell me about the weeklong celebrations of Tagore’s birth anniversary in Shillong this year with, among other things, a spread from the Thakurbari kitchen, I wonder which Tagore quote she would use for a laugh.

‘Can you imagine what your name might have been had it not been for Tagore and his new mythology of Bengali names? My name, Amit, comes from Tagore’s most famous novel, Shesher Kobita, which he wrote in Shillong, my hometown,’ an English teacher had once told me, adding, ‘even the name of my state of birth was given by Tagore.’ It was his words that came to my mind when I first visited Meghalaya. ‘Megh’ is cloud in Bengali, and ‘alaya’ is light – that hidden, almost pre-Raphaelite light, in an autumnal sky makes Tagore’s baptism a happy neologism.

Inscription, Jitbhumi, Shillong. ‘Here lived Rabindranath Tagore in April-May-June 1923. His famous drama Raktakarabi and poems Shillonger Chithi etc. were written here.

Tagore had visited Shillong thrice, and had stayed at the Brookside Bungalow and Sidle House. It was in Machhimpur that Tagore had watched a Manipuri dance performance for the first time. He had immediately written to the King of Tripura, perhaps his favourite patron, asking for a dance teacher who could teach this dance form to his students in Santiniketan. That teacher was Nileshwar Mukherjee. Tagore’s relationship with Tripura was, to use a much scrubbed word, special. Its king was the first to recognize his genius. Here is Tagore in a speech later published in the journal Robi: ‘My first introduction with Tripura happened when I was very young… Fame came much later. It was Tripura’s Maharaj Birchandra Manikya Bahadur who was the first to recognize my talent, congratulating me even when I was just a young poet… helping me during the writing of Rajarshi and later, asking me to accompany him to Kurseong.’


There are two things that the correlationist in me discovers about the Tagore trips in Himalayan Bengal, Assam and Tripura: the two plays and a novel written here, Muktadhara, Raktakarabi, and Rajarshi, are about kings; and most of the Tagore ‘houses’ there have now become ‘government’ buildings – government college quarters in Darjeeling, a cooperative training centre in Kalimpong, Parliament House in Shillong and the Raj Bhavan in Agartala. In that change of hand is perhaps a telling commentary on our intellectual histories.